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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘You did good’: Former EWU star Cooper Kupp helped put Cheney on the national map; he’s still fighting to keep it there

It’s been five years since Cooper Kupp walked off the turf at Roos Field for the last time, yet in many ways he’s still in Cheney.

An All-American at Eastern Washington for four seasons and the most prolific receiver in college football history, Kupp’s image is in restaurants, campus buildings and in the bigger-than-life panels at the football stadium.

Yet it’s the intangible reminders, unseen by most fans, that speak to Kupp’s place in Eastern’s history – and its future.

Kupp lives almost a thousand miles away, but his connection to the football program and its players, who he calls “my brothers,” is as strong as ever.

“I have a ton of pride in being an Eastern Washington Eagle,” Kupp said earlier this week.

He’s the leading receiver in the National Football League this year and about to play in the Super Bowl, but Kupp has gone out of his way to help sustain the winning tradition at Eastern Washington.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, he led Zoom meetings with the EWU receivers, offering pointers, praise and a pep talk.

Last year, when the football program was threatened with budget cuts, Kupp spearheaded a video teleconference that included more than 100 former players and coaches to engage the administration and brainstorm ways to help raise funds for the team.

The current players “deserve a group of people who are pushing the football program and the university forward,” Kupp said during a Super Bowl news conference earlier this week.

If athletics is the front porch of Eastern Washington University, Kupp is sitting on the top step.

Those with an emotional investment in the Eagles are bound to feel the goosebumps during player introductions and the words “Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington University.”

And yes, there will be “Cooper Bowl” parties this weekend, notably one organized by the school.

For Eagles fans, Kupp and the school are inseparable. For five seasons, each nurtured the other.

While in Cheney, Kupp combined the best of both worlds, leaping high for a pass but staying grounded in life. Getting separation on the field, yet forging ties in Cheney that will last a lifetime.

“He wore the logo as proudly as anybody,” Eastern coach Aaron Best said.

A special rite of passage

Before he left Yakima for Cheney in the fall of 2012, Kupp made an unusual request of his pastor: He wanted to be baptized.

“He’s very thorough in everything he does, and he prepared for college in the same way,” said his grandmother, Carla Kupp. “He wanted to stay the person he was and keep his faith, and that’s hard in college.”

Even before the start of fall term, Kupp sought the counsel of Jason Randles, the athletic department chaplain.

“I think that for Cooper, his faith was important, but also there was the question of, ‘How do I integrate that into school and athletics?’ ” Randles said last week.

Kupp’s faith also helped sustain him during the redshirt year and being away from Anna, his future wife and then a student-athlete at the University of Arkansas.

During a 2016 interview with The Spokesman-Review, Kupp said he was struck by the expectations that incoming freshmen face on every college campus: the expectation to drink and party.

“The empty side of life,” Kupp called it.

“These freshmen are instantly hit with the idea that this is what college is supposed to be about,” Kupp said. “That’s one reason we came back: to have an influence on young adults in a very important time in their lives.”

As a freshman, however, Kupp faced the dual challenges of competing and fitting in – the latter a much bigger challenge for an 18-year-old straight arrow.

“There are two cultures in the locker room, and it’s not easy,” Randles said.

“But when someone has a good perspective, that their identity isn’t based on their performance in sports, they’re better able to handle failure and be a better teammate,” Randles said.

But for four years, Kupp showed that straight doesn’t necessarily mean narrow; the hands that caught all those passes also reached out to his teammates.

After Kupp married Anna in the summer of 2015, they started a ritual: On game days, Anna would put together goodie bags, with cookies and a Bible passage or note written by Cooper, to be placed at players’ lockers.

That was just one reason the Kupps decided to stay another year and defer Cooper’s plans to play in the NFL. That decision was less about dollars and cents than unfinished business – athletic, academic and spiritual.

“And a chance to play one more year with my brother,” said Kupp, referring to his brother Ketner, who played linebacker at EWU from 2015-18 and now coaches at Pacific Lutheran.

The Kupps consulted with family, friends and experts, then prayed and fasted. “Once we knew what the decision was, it was really easy, and there was never any second-guessing,” Cooper said.

Catching on in a hurry

In the Eagles’ final preseason scrimmage of 2012, Kupp caught six balls for 120 yards. On his last reception, he juked a defender on the left sideline, a move that brought cheers.

“I felt where I was, and tried to make a move and show the guys what I can do,” Kupp said.

Then the season began, and Kupp was redshirted.

That was no surprise, as then-coach Beau Baldwin had three returning All-Americans in Brandon Kaufman, Greg Herd and Nick Edwards. All were veterans of the Eagles’ national championship team of 2010.

But unlike some redshirts, Kupp didn’t go through the motions.

Edwards, who later became Kupp’s position coach, recalled how Kupp “would keep us out there after practice, as a redshirt. He always took it to another level.”

Best, then the Eagles’ offensive line coach, recalled conversations with Kupp that bordered on nerdy: about spacing and angles and how they applied to the passing game.

“Every week, on the field, in the weight room, the film room, he approached that redshirt year as if he was going to play,” Baldwin said. “The example of preparation meeting opportunity.”

But for the first time in years, he wasn’t playing.

“It was hard,” Kupp said.

Doubts about his ability stretched back to his early days at Davis High School. He was too small and too frail, said those who didn’t bother to delve deeper.

His grandfather, Jake Kupp, recalled 7-on-7 competitions at summer camps at the University of Washington, where he starred as an offensive lineman in the 1960s.

Steve Sarkisian, then the coach at UW, was in Yakima on a promotional tour when the elder Kupp tried to put in a good word for his grandson.

“But he just shrugged his shoulders and laughed,” Kupp said.

Three years later, Kupp burned the Huskies for 145 yards and three scores, a pattern of success against Pac-12 schools that began a year earlier in his first collegiate start.

‘The leader we need’

In his first collegiate game, the 2013 season opener at Oregon State, Kupp caught two touchdown passes as the Eagles knocked off the 25th-ranked Beavers.

It only got better from there, the hard work rewarded for Kupp’s entire career.

Along the way, he helped the Eagles win three Big Sky Conference titles in four years and go deep into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

“He brings so much positive energy, even when he’s hurting like he is now,” quarterback Jordan West said in 2015. “No matter what, he’s going to control it and be the leader we need.”

Leadership went beyond setting an example.

During their senior year in 2016, Kupp sat down with fellow receiver Kendrick Bourne and blew him away.

“I told him, ‘You’re a better receiver than I am,’ and that he was about to take off – and he did just that,” Kupp said of Bourne, who was undrafted in 2017 but is now in his fifth year in the NFL.

Kupp also set an example in the classroom, achieving a grade-point average of 3.62 while majoring in finance with a minor in business administration.

“A guy like that can’t help but rub off on guys,” said former EWU quarterback Vernon Adams, who led the EWU offense during Kupp’s first two seasons.

A career for the ages

By the end of his career, Kupp was the most prolific receiver in college football history at any level, with 6,464 receiving yards. He also had 428 catches and 73 touchdowns during a four-year career, which included a Football Championship Subdivision’s version of the Heisman: the Walter Payton Award.

One thing eluded him: a national title. The Eagles came heart-wrenchingly close in 2013 and 2016, losing semifinal games in the final minutes at Roos Field.

His final game came ended in the cruelest fashion, as a Youngstown State receiver caught the winning touchdown with his arms clutching the ball around the back of Cooper’s brother, Ketner.

Somehow, Kupp kept his poise and perspective.

As the Youngstown State players whooped and hollered, Kupp gathered his teammates – “my brothers” – in prayer at midfield.

Dozens of EWU players gathered, black uniforms matching their mood.

Somehow, Kupp lifted them up. The scoreboard lost its finality to become just another signpost on the journey of life.

Then he walked off the red field for the last time as a player, wife Anna at his side. He waved to the cheering fans and disappeared into the sanctuary of the locker room. A few minutes later, Kupp emerged and walked down the hall for one last encounter with the media.

The next moment was reminiscent of the Coca-Cola commercial featuring Mean Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

From out of nowhere, a small boy emerged and approached the All-American wide receiver.

“You did good,” the boy said.

The legacy

Kupp went on to the NFL and the Eagles kept on winning. They reached the FCS title game three years later – without Kupp on the field but present nonetheless.

Former EWU wide receivers coach Pat McCann, now at Fresno State, recalls Kupp taking time to connect with the players during a Zoom meeting.

“The biggest thing he talked about was his mentality, both as a player and how that’s carried over into his time with the Rams,” McCann said.

Having a player of Kupp’s stature also makes a difference in recruiting – a good reason why the Eagles are still such a prolific passing team.

Kupp tends to measure his words when he’s facing the media but was outspoken on the topic of funding athletics at his alma mater.

As the controversy over sports budgets re-emerged last year, Kupp spearheaded a massive Zoom meeting intended to engage the EWU administration.

This week in Los Angeles, he doubled down on his opposition to a proposal – since dropped – cutting or downsizing the football program.

“I thought it was so disrespectful to the guys who have invested so much time and in the people on that program,” Kupp said.

To those who’ve followed the program most closely, Kupp’s legacy is second to none.

“He’s done more for Eastern Washington than any player in history, I’m sure,” said Dave Cook, former sports information director at EWU.

Paul Delaney, a former sportswriter for the Cheney Free Press, even wrote a book about it. The 472-page book, entitled “Taking Flight,” covers Eastern Washington football from 2007 to 2018.

Kupp is on the cover. The photo is from 2014, when the Eagles hosted Idaho State.

Kupp is in the end zone, his left arm outstretched and the ball seemingly out of reach.

Did he make the catch?

Of course he did.